Arendt’s challenge to churches . . .

img_0503So I am reading a fairly dense essay by Hannah Arendt, “Reflections on Little Rock.”   While I am no expert on Arendt and the broad reach of her writings, I was not surprised to learn this was a controversial piece and was finally rejected for publication by the journal that requested her thoughts on the integration of public schools in Little Rock.  Ultimately, the piece was published in the winter of 1959 edition of Dissent.  Arendt was traversing the razor’s edge between social discrimination and political equality; the classic argument between individual freedom and universal equality.  Arendt argues the role of government is to ensure social discrimination never curtails political equality.  She argues that social discrimination, when allowed legal standing (i.e. discriminatory laws such as miscegenation, restricting voting, etc.), becomes persecution.  However, and to the everlasting frustration of some, she also argues “The moment social discrimination is legally abolished, the freedom of society is violated . . .”  In the complexity of her discourse, she is arguing that social discrimination limiting political/universal equality cannot be affirmed by the legal systems of the state, but the legal systems of the state cannot impede social discrimination as an exercise of individual freedom, no matter its disagreeable nature.  In the social setting, she sees discrimination as an unavoidable human reality; still, it should neither be affirmed or restricted by public law.  Government or, more specifically, the deliberative structures that organize the laws of the land “. . . can legitimately take no steps against social discrimination because government can act only in the name of equality . . .”.  


Ironically, she offers this caveat, “The only public force that can fight social prejudice (i.e. discrimination) is the churches, and they can do so in the name of the uniqueness of the person, for it is on the principle of the uniqueness of souls that religion (and especially the Christian faith) is based.  The churches are indeed the only communal and public place where appearances do not count, and if discrimination creeps into the houses of worship, this in an infallible sign of their religious failing.  They have become social and are no longer religious institutions.”  (P 240, The Portable Hannah Arendt, Penguin Classic, 2003).  In essence, Arendt argues the social context of the human experience is always going to be subject to discriminatory tendencies of one sort or another.  Government, she argues, cannot legislate laws to change this.  On the other hand, she asserts, equality of access to the privileges of citizenship to be an existential reality that constitutes the basic law of the American way of life.  Any effort, legal or societal, to limit such equality of citizenship must be rejected.  Moreover, civil/political equality should be protected by the laws of the land.  In her construction, these two competing realities must be managed independently and without each excluding the other.   EXCEPT, as she states above, in the context of religion, where the ultimate equality of createdness by God transcends all differences that would allow for social discrimination.  Churches are the ultimate moral and ethical voice to challenge the Aristotelian accidents that vex and divide humanity in discriminatory and prejudicial ways.  Obversely, Arendt seems committed to equality as the underlying political and religious essence of the human experience.

At least in this essay, Arendt does not draw any direct conclusion regarding the role of the church in solving the conundrum.  However, she suggests clearly churches should work to reject social discrimination and affirm human equality.  Otherwise, churches should acknowledge, through their inaction or contrary actions, they are “no longer religious institutions.” Seems to me there are a lot of churches that have abandoned what might be thought of as an essential vocation of the church, at least as understood by Hannah Arendt.

Arendt never reads easy; but she always reads deep.


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Filed under episcopal, Hannah Arendt

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